Three systemic shifts to better serve students with disabilities, and all students, in DC

By Peter Timothy Anderson

From news headlines, to expert testimony, to official reports pre-pandemic, it was clear that DC students were making strong academic progress on nearly every measure: PARCC, the Nation’s Report Card, school enrollment, and graduation rates. This was true for all subgroups, but one: students with disabilities. On nearly all of these measures, as well as assessments of academic growth, exclusionary discipline, and attendance rates, students with disabilities had been left behind. They are still behind.

Today, just 8 percent of students with disabilities perform at grade level in English language arts; only 6 percent did so in math, the lowest performance of any student group.

According to OSSE, DC sends nearly 10% of its students with disabilities to separate schools, which is three times the national average. DC students with disabilities are also less likely to learn in inclusive classrooms, compared to their national peers, and DC is last in the nation in exiting students with disabilities from special education after age 14 at a depressing rate of 0% of students.

So as school leaders work to improve practice at our schools, what are the policy shifts that would better serve students with disabilities?

DC should invest in three critical policies (in addition to more funding for schools):

Tracking Data in the Right Way for the Right Reasons

Policymakers can support data-driven decisions for student success by requiring better data and building better tracking systems that work. While there are no shortages of data requirements for schools, policymakers can help streamline requirements and create systems that talk to one another.

Today our schools deal with antiquated systems that don’t update in real time, regularly crash, and require a lot of paperwork and replication of effort. Some data points are for academic accountability for our authorizer or for OSSE; others are for compliance with an IEP; and still others dive into how a student is doing academically and social-emotionally. And don’t forget attendance and behavior data.

The results in a mishmash of systems and requirements that waste time. No wonder so many don’t have the time to use data to make the data-informed teaching and learning decisions we need to make. The city should invest in robust, yet streamlined data systems that work reliably, share real-time information, and take the paperwork and time burden off of staff. Doing so would enable staff to do what is intended: use data to understand what students know and how to make quick, effective adjustments.

Pipeline of Special Education Personnel

Finding and keeping high-quality special education personnel is an ongoing challenge and will continue to be unless DC gets creative on building personnel pipelines. DC must begin to build that pipeline of future special education personnel by:

  • Streamlining the credentialing process for current DC teachers, who are looking to move into special education. These are teachers that our schools already employ and who know our city, schools, and students. This is an opportunity to incentivize our best educators into these critical roles.
  • Creating fellowships for DC students to come back to our schools and teach in special education. With the right incentives (such as direct partnerships with local universities or bonuses), we can attract more special education teachers and provide future jobs for today’s students.
  • Address the hard job of teaching in DC by providing housing subsidies so teachers can live in DC and providing more meaningful health and wellness supports.

Continuity of Services

Students enter my building with a plethora of needs. Coming from different elementary schools across the city, we must figure out what each student needs on day one of learning (often without the knowledge that their previous school implemented to support students). This not only wastes critical classroom time, but it is frustrating to the student and family alike for having to start over, again. It’s time to connect those dots.

We need a systematic way to transfer the knowledge of how best to support each student with disabilities. A student’s previous school may know that a student thrives best in an inclusive classroom, for example, but struggles in new environments. Having that knowledge before the beginning of the school year would allow my team to start the student in a small special education classroom and set a goal for movement to a general education classroom within the first year. Or maybe another student needs accommodation to take assessments, but also thrives around other students. Knowing that could allow school staff to set up a smaller room where that student can be tested along with a small number of peers. The city should set up protocols and data structures (see above) to ensure that the knowledge around what a student needs doesn’t have to be carried by the student or family, or worse, lost entirely.

We must do more for the students who are least served by our current system. These three policy shifts would allow the work of schools to become more strategic, more nimble and begin to provide a richer, more intentional education for DC’s students with disabilities.

Peter Timothy Anderson
Head of School
Washington Latin PCS

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